photo by Daniel Chekalov
I’m a guitarist for hire—a sideman. Many of the potential gigs I get calls for involve singing harmony. Sadly, I have to turn those down, because I am awful at singing harmony.
Given a clearly defined part and ample time to practice it, I can manage some basic vocal harms.
But all around me are guys and gals who can effortlessly imagine a perfect harmony part and chime in on the fly. Even at my barroom duo gigs, laymen point at my unused mic, asking to sing the harmony part.
This has frustrated me for probably fifteen years now, but I haven’t been able to get a toehold.
Much like with guitar playing, most of the people who are great at harmony singing are terrible at explaining it to people who struggle with it.
When I set out to learn to harmonize, I asked everyone I know who’s any good at it for help. All of the advice I got was really high-level and useless to me:
- “oh, I just sort of absorbed it growing up in church.”
- “practice harmonizing with every song that comes on the radio”
- “listen to Crosby Stills Nash—their voices are distinct enough to pick out the parts”
- “if you’re flat, raise your eyebrows!”
- “you gotta match vowel shapes with your mouth if you want to blend”
- “one person sings the root, one person sings the third, and another sings the fifth”
These things are (apparently) all true… but completely useless for someone like me who is struggling with the basics.
It’s taken me a looooooooong time to figure out, but I’ve finally starting making inroads on harmony singing.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the process I’ve designed to teach myself harmony singing.
I’m treating this as an Ultralearning project. In keeping with the principles of Scott Young’s excellent book of the same name:
- Metalearning: First, Draw a Map. Learning how to learn this skill, doing quality research, drawing on my existing competencies.
- Focus: Sharpen Your Knife. Developing my concentration, carving out chunks of time, and organizing my workload so I don’t waste time & energy debating what to do next.
- Directness: Go Straight Ahead. Learning by doing the actual thing I want to be good at—not wasting time reading a textbook that dissects Bach’s four-part harmony writing (brilliant and inspiring though it may be).
- Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point. Being ruthless in improving my weakest points, and breaking down high-level skills into their component pieces.
- Retrieval: Test to Learn. Testing myself before I feel ready, and not hiding behind passive review.
- Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches. Pursuing harsh and uncomfortable feedback without getting butthurt about it, and learning to discern between useful signal and useless noise.
- Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket. Understanding what I forget and why. The goal is lifelong understanding, not a fleeting cram-for-the-test “success.”
photo by Melanie Van Leeuwen
What’s The Goal?
So many people start off a learning project with vague goals like “speak Spanish.” Not only does this deprive them of a clear finish line, it also makes intermediate goals impossible to determine.
For this project, my Big End Goals are:
- Be able to perform harmony parts live in a way that adds to the group’s sound (instead of dragging down the quality with shoddy out-of-tune or just-plain-wrong notes).
- Be able to pick out individual harmony parts from recordings.
- Be able to create & perform harmony parts intuitively on the fly (without the need to write them out and practice them).
This sets me up with two things. One, a vague idea of what my intermediate goals should be. Two, those intermediate goals help inform Ultralearning principle #1 above: First, Draw a Map.
The analogy I’ve heard used (though I don’t recall where) is move the stepping stones closer together. In other words, if you try to jump from one bank of the river to the other, you’re gonna fail. But if you can chart a path between stepping stones where no single step involves a huge leap, you’ll have a much easier time of it.
(Obviously, this is the GuitarOS method in a nutshell: make the methodology easy & clear, and save the struggle for the activities where struggling is what makes you better.)
My intermediate goals are:
- Get incredibly clear about the process I should be using to practice (incorporating brutally honest feedback by recording myself, testing things in context, performing live, etc—more on this below).
- Learn to sing in tune (and hear when I’m not in tune).
- Learn to hear individual notes in chords (so I can hear the melody and my other chord tone options).
- Sing other people’s harmonies first (my choices as a guitarist are informed by the thousands of songs I’ve learned; no sense in trying to create harmony parts in a vacuum).
- Write & learn harmonies in a nerdy analytical way before attempting to write & learn them in an intuitive, natural way (taking it all apart to see how it works will help hone my intuition).
Intermediate Goal #1: Nail The Process
I’m still fleshing out this process, but I’m using roughly the same method for harmony singing that I use to learn & practice guitar parts:
- Use isolated tracks inside my DAW to transcribe my part.
- We all hear better on our instrument than on any other, so I use my guitar to figure out vocal parts.
- Do the –scribe half of transcribing—write it out. This makes things 1000x clearer.
- Once I can play & sing the part, I mute it in the DAW and sing it with the rest of the tracks in a short loop.
- Before I repeat that too many times, I record myself to get brutal feedback. (Because practicing mistakes is a bad idea.) Tunable and Ableton both have great tuners with “history,” allowing me to see clearly where I’m off. Seeing helps me hear better.
- Once I have it down in isolation, I practice it in context. This means in the context of the whole song, but also it means while playing my guitar part.
- Finally, I find a place to do it live. I record this too. In multitrack. If I can do it live (or in full-band rehearsal), I know I’m getting it.
Sidenote on recording & feedback—in the documentary Echo In the Canyon, David Crosby (arguably one of the all-time great harmony singers) says that The Byrds used to rehearse in a recording studio. It was “hearing how awful we were” that both informed & motivated their practice and improvement. What an amazing time we live in that we all own our own recording studio!
Intermediate Goal #2: Learn To Sing In Tune
For this step, I’m using the amazing $4 app Tunable (available on both iOS & Android) and “moveable-do solfege.”
I outline the entire process in excruciating step-by-step detail in Effortless Ear Training, but here’s the 30k foot view:
- Match pitch.
- Match pitch in a different octave.
- Sing long tones and keep them in tune.
- Learn about tetrachords.
- Learn moveable-do solfege (do re mi fa sol la ti do where the root is always do.)
- Learn to sing and discern between “minimal pairs”—half steps vs whole steps, whole steps vs minor thirds, minor thirds vs major thirds, etc.
Photo by Matheus Ferrero
Intermediate Goal #3: Learn to hear individual notes in chords.
Again, this process is covered in ridiculous depth and with crunchy step-by-step checklists inside Effortless Ear Training. But here’s the broad overview:
- Arpeggios: Sing the lower tetrachord (fa mi re do) followed by the chord tones up & down. Use Tunable (and solfege) to test yourself. Repeat for I, ii, iii, & IV chords. Switch to the upper tetrachord (sol la ti do) and repeat with the V & vi chords.
- Seventh Chords: Play & sing all four notes of the chord, testing yourself with Tunable. Play the triad & sing the 7th. Repeat with Imaj7, iim7, iiim7, IVmaj7, V7, vim7, and viim7b5.
- Progressions: Make simple mini-progressions of I, ii, iii, IV, V, & vi chords. Sing solfege arpeggios that change chords at each measure (or half measure).
- Notes In Chords: Using Tunable, play all the notes of the chord simultaneously. Using solfege, sing the individual notes. Repeat for I, ii, iii, IV, V, & vi and Imaj7, iim7, iiim7, IVmaj7, V7, vim7, & viim7b5 chords.
Intermediate Goal #4: Sing other people’s harmonies first.
My working hypothesis here is that—just like I learned to create (and imitate) guitar parts by learning the guitar parts to thousands of songs—the best way to get a feel for how harmony parts work is to learn a lot of them.
I have a lot of assets here that most people don’t: I play in bands with a dozen people who are really good at singing harmony. I can read music (hello, Beatles songbook!). My ears are better tuned to good & bad than most. I have a lot of real-song backing tracks in my library, several pro-level DAWs, and the know-how to use them.
But don’t sell yourself short: with a tiny bit of creativity I think you can find a path forward.
Intermediate Goal #5: Write & learn harmonies in a nerdy analytical way first.
In my experience, there’s a magical black box process that occurs with learning music. We can engineer the conditions that create the outcome we want, but we don’t really understand how it works. And that’s ok.
In this context, it’ll mean combining Intermediate Goals #4 (learn a ton of other people’s harmonies) and #5 (get really nerdy & analytical with them) in order to get to the juiciest of my big end goals: Be able to create & perform harmony parts intuitively on the fly (without the need to write them out and practice them).
It’s important to note that:
- I’m a long ways off from my end goals, and
- I could be totally wrong about what else is necessary to get there.
Since I’m not yet at that point—and I could be missing some intermediate goals between here and my end goals—I won’t get too detailed about this (for now).
But I do want to elaborate on what I mean by “get nerdy and analytical” with other people’s harmonies. Here’s what I’m doing:
- Learning the vocal parts on guitar. I’m way better at guitar than at singing. Hearing & seeing vocal parts on guitar helps me hear them better. It’s also super helpful to see & hear the melody alongside the harmony (usually on adjacent strings). Bonus: I’m learning a ton about guitar in the process.
- Writing the parts out. Again, I read music and you probably don’t, but this is massively helpful in helping me hear the parts and how they fit together with the whole. Probably you could get this benefit from writing it out in TAB, but that’s a question only you can answer.
- Analyzing the relationships. “Music theory” is just giving names to commonly occurring musical bits. We guitarists are at a huge disadvantage here, because we mostly use TAB, chord grids, and other visual representations of the guitar to transmit ideas. Here’s a great opportunity to use the language every other instrument uses—roots, thirds, fifths, note names, pedaling common tones between two chords, etc, etc. GuitarOS: Practical Theory [LINK] would give you every tool you’d need to accomplish that.
Ok, so I just dropped a two-thousand word to-do list on you. Where should you start? What’s the (single) next step?
If singing harmony is on your list of things to learn, you gotta start with your ears. If (like me) you’re having a tough time hearing what to sing, start by tuning your ears up. Effortless Ear Training is the course I wish existed when I set out on this journey (but it wasn’t, so I had to make it).
For the month of November, Effortless Ear Training is on sale. Use coupon code NOV for 33% off.
If your ears are already super dialed-in, you can skip straight to learning a huge pile of other people’s harmonies. You can buy a cheap keyboard, learn to read music, and buy sheet music for The Beatles (or whoever’s harmonies tickle your fancy).
Or if the academic route isn’t your scene, sign up for emails to be notified when the next course drops—there will be no shortage of opportunities to practice harmonies using the DAW practice process I described above.